For most people, formality in dining conjures up images of finger bowls, phalanxes of silverware, and waiters in white jackets pulling out your chair for you. Stiff. No fun. It takes a restaurant like Anton’s at the Swan in Lambertville to remind us that formality does not have to mean formaldehyde.
At Anton’s—located in the Swan Hotel, built in 1870—it means something closer to old-fashioned elegance and hospitality. There are individually lit oil paintings, candles encased in tall hurricane lamps, dark wood, leather armchairs, and antiques. This warm, intimate atmosphere combines harmoniously with pitch-perfect New American cuisine from chef/owner Chris Connors.
Connors, a native of Orange, has been at the helm of this nineteen-year-old establishment for the last eleven years; before that he was head chef at the Peacock Inn in Princeton and chef de cuisine at the Frenchtown Inn. He also worked at Doris & Ed’s and the Tarragon Tree. At Anton’s, the 45-year-old chef has honed his approach for greater simplicity and seasonality, including organic meats.
“I’m not into fourteen different flavors competing on the plate,” he says. “I try to source some really good local ingredients, bring them together harmoniously, and let the flavors speak for themselves.”
The menu changes with the seasons. The roasted-asparagus risotto with parmesan, rich with asparagus flavor, which we sampled in early June, became a sweet corn risotto the following month, while fall ushers in a brown-butter and roasted-tomato risotto. Likewise, the endive salad with blue cheese and pecans from our first visit was replaced by a roasted beet, arugula, and goat cheese salad on our second visit, offering another intriguing contrast of flavors and textures.
We began with drinks in the atmospheric Swan Bar. Surrounding the long, brass-railed mahogany bar, this room—with its oriental rugs, pressed-tin ceiling, mounted stuffed geese, and fireplace—is about as close as you’ll come to a nineteenth century English country lodge this side of the Atlantic. Floor-to-ceiling leaded glass windows look out on an ivied brick patio.
Once you settle into the leather chairs and low bar tables, you may be tempted to forgo the dining room altogether and order from the bar menu, which focuses on salads, burgers, and pizza, albeit interesting versions—like the popular sirloin burger with homemade potato salad and the signature mashed potato and red onion pizza. These make a fine meal, but you’ll miss some of Connors’s artistry if you skip the romantic, 35-seat dining room, where the full menu is available. (A second, 30-seat dining room upstairs handles overflow on weekends, and a smaller upstairs dining room seats eight to twelve people.)
The first hints we were in for a treat were the chewy sourdough rolls, made from the restaurant’s own perpetual yeast starter, and served with amuse-bouches— espresso cups of cold beet soup one night and black bean soup another. Besides reliable salads (such as beets, goat cheese, and arugula), two winning appetizers were grilled shrimp with coconut rice and peanut sauce, and sautéed crab cake on braised red cabbage. The grilled shrimp had just the right bite, while the peanut sauce gained character from ginger and jalapeños. Panfried in olive oil, the crab cake had a crispy exterior and an interior of pure chunk crabmeat.
One of the star entrées is rack of lamb, grilled and served in a veal stock and red wine reduction, with sautéed broccoli and carrots, and creamy potatoes gratin with perfectly browned edges. I was served four large, meaty chops (so large, in fact, I had to bring two home). Other meats were equally tender and flavorful: grilled sirloin on creamed spinach, Readington River buffalo strip steak with truffled potatoes, and a thick grilled pork chop served with New York cheddar and Stilton mac and cheese.
Fish selections change seasonally as well. We tried sautéed halibut, a tender, sweet fish enhanced by a tapenade of kalamata olives, anchovies, garlic, and sun-dried tomatoes and served with a sautéed polenta cake. Poultry comes from Griggstown Quail Farm near Princeton. Roasted in a cast-iron pot, the Griggstown chicken, served with spinach risotto and mixed vegetables, came out moist, succulent, and crispy skinned.
Desserts cling to the tried-and-true: warm flourless chocolate cake with homemade coconut ice cream, crème brûlée, pot de crème, carrot cake, fresh fruit shortcake. But execution was flawless. The pot de crème presented a deep cup of rewarding baked chocolate pudding, thickened with egg yolk instead of the traditional cornstarch, topped with a crunchy peanut biscotto.
The shortcake, covered with a mound of strawberries, blueberries, and whipped cream, reminded me of summer picnics from my youth. My favorite dessert was warm Venetian carrot cake, a lighter but still moist variation on the traditional. This icingless version is made with almond flour, olive oil, carrots, rum-soaked white raisins, and pignoli nuts.
Our meal ended, as every table’s does, with complimentary homemade Grand Marnier chocolate truffles that added one last harmonious note to an already resonant experience.Click here to leave a comment